Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about the power of collaboration. In the first part of it, I described the process that our coaching staff went through to develop a session for our district’s upcoming professional development day. I summarized it as a seven-step process, much of which involved frustration, but ultimately ended in having a plan for the session. I didn’t go into detail about the hard work, cognitive energy, and amount of time (hours and hours) that went into the planning. But those three components were a huge part of the process.
Last Monday, February 1, was the BIG day: our coaching staff delivered the same one-hour presentation, dedicated to Intervention, to three different groups (elementary, middle school, and high school staffs). As with any presentation day, anxiety was high, and confidence was low. We were nervous about the delivery and especially the reception of the session we had prepared around Intervention. We had worked to find the right balance between reviewing previously learned information mixed with new learning. Our first two sessions went relatively well; we embedded opportunities for teams to think, watch, reflect, and collaborate around the topic of Intervention.
Going into our third session with the high school staff, we were feeling both confident that our presentation had resonated with the elementary and middle school staff, and were feeling an elevated level of anxiety around delivering the same presentation to the high school staff. What if our message wasn’t on-point for them? What if they asked questions that we weren’t able to answer? What if they didn’t see any relevance to their world?
We rolled with the presentation, and were happy to see the reflective conversations happening among different teams of teachers. When the session ended, two staff members lingered behind. I was still collecting my materials, so was the one member of the coaching staff left in the room with them (another coach later joined). One of the high school staff members, a colleague whom I hold in very high regard, started asking questions. I don’t remember the exact questions or sequence, but soon found myself being questioned about why we used the content that we did for the presentation. A summary of his points might be the following: 1) we didn’t present any new learning 2) our pace, as a district, is too slow – we are not moving forward with district initiatives 3) as a coaching staff, we hold a large part of responsibility in that stagnation 4) we are catering to the crowd that doesn’t “get it” while leaving the vast majority who do “get it” frustrated at our slow pace 5) we need to do unto staff as we would have them do unto their students: collect data to determine everyone’s needs, deliver needed content to meet the varying needs, review the data and begin the process all over again 6) staff who don’t comply and move forward with district initiatives need to be fired.
I immediately went into a defensive mode. I felt bombarded by the feedback: not only was I anticipating a pat on the back and a “Nice job,” when I saw that two colleagues had stayed behind after the presentation, but I also hadn’t asked for any feedback, so wasn’t expecting anything, especially not in the mode that it was delivered. This was tough feedback to receive, and even tougher because of the timing. It came right after our last presentation of the day, at a time when I was looking forward to celebrating completion of the dreaded event (delivering professional development remains my least favorite part of my job).
As my colleague asked questions and gave his assessment of the presentation, I jumped in with our reasoning: 1) we were asked by administration to give a presentation on Intervention (we didn’t have a choice), 2) we have a great deal of staff who haven’t grasped the concept, 3) it is incredibly tough to develop a session that meets the needs of all of our learners, from preschool teachers through high school teachers, all of whom teach a variety of subjects to a variety of age levels, 4) we can’t just fire staff who don’t “get it” – there are protections in place to avoid such unfettered firing; who would we get to replace them?; and we don’t just “fire” our students when they don’t “get it” the first (or second or third time).
I felt like I (and our coaching staff) had been kicked in the teeth.
My colleague, at the end of “the beating” and in a subsequent phone call which included (I think!) an apology, made it abundantly clear that he wanted to be part of the solution. He offered to assist the coaching staff in planning our next professional development session: he’s a “systems and procedures guy with a unique perspective.” As mentioned earlier, I hold this guy in high regard: he means what he says. He truly wants to be part of the solution, and is very much willing to put his money where his mouth is.
Since “the beating”, I have come across two other people’s reactions to receiving criticism. Our circumstances were different, but reactions were the same. One was Glennon Doyle’s reaction to a friend’s picking apart the first draft of her book, Untamed, in an Unlocking Us podcast episode with Brené Brown. The second was a a post in the Nerdy Book Club by Nawal Qarooni Casiano, where she described feedback received from a participant after a virtual presentation. Again, our reactions were the same: the first reaction to criticism tends to be jumping into defense mode; it’s a natural reaction. Depending on the situation, a person may need to stay in this mode for some time. The key is to avoid staying in defense mode. Step back, observe your thoughts, let them unfold, and be careful to monitor them so that you don’t get stuck there. I love where Nawal Qarooni Casiano landed after her experience: “I internalized it and owned it, then gave myself grace.”
That’s a plan I can get on board with. Our coaching staff needs to internalize the feedback, own it, give ourselves grace, AND I would add, make a plan to do better moving forward. I shared the colleague’s feedback with our coaching staff on Wednesday. Their initial reactions were the same as mine (defense mode); I made sure to include the fact that our colleague wants to be part of the solution and has offered to put in the time to help develop our next professional development session. This was initially met with resistance, but the idea was entertained. I’m not sure where our coaching staff sits with the feedback and their reactions today, but I know that we do need to revisit it, and soon, so that we can do better moving forward.